Last Saturday night, the head chefs of several well-known Austin restaurants went missing from their kitchens.
They were spotted 16 miles outside downtown Austin at Ceres Park Ranch, preparing for the third annual Wine and Swine, a pig roast extravaganza benefiting the culinary grants program of the Austin Food and Wine Alliance (more on the nonprofit and its work at austinfoodwinealliance.org).
The full event, held Sunday, featured more than 20 Central Texas chefs, but in a tradition borne out of the necessities of slow cooking, a few chefs prepared to spend the night camping out next to their pork. Smoke from their fire pits wafted through the air as the preparations got underway late Saturday.
Lawrence Kocurek, chef de cuisine at Trace, held up a lantern to illuminate a huge pork loin he was preparing to serve the next day with kale and morcilla sausage.
Before arriving at the site, he took what he called “basically the middle of the pig” and stuffed it with an Eastern European spice mix — caraway seeds, juniper, cinnamon — before poaching it for nine hours in white wine.
Kocurek burned pecan wood rather than oak in his pit, which he says infuses a sweeter flavor, while planning to use the coals to smoke the pig for 12 hours. A sleeping bag and a chair rested next to his fire pit, and he planned to set an alarm to wake him every hour and a half to check on his pig throughout the night.
This was Kocurek’s first year at Wine and Swine, but he was already enjoying the casual vibe and said it would be the first event where he wouldn’t be wearing a chef’s coat. “If I’m staying up for 12 hours, I’m wearing blue jeans and I’m going to be comfortable,” he said.
A few yards away, Rene Ortiz (formerly of La Condesa and Sway, now with Cochi Superstar) drank red wine near his tent while two whole hogs were splayed out on the table in front of him. Ortiz planned to smoke them all night over live oak while basting them with a mix of salt, water and spices so they could get smoky and crispy for the next day. Ortiz described these elaborate preparations as “a labor of love,” adding: “I do it because I love being outside. It’s kind of a break.”
Though the chefs were focused on prepping their swine, they socialized and compared notes over beers from Jester King Brewery and pizzas from Stanley’s Farmhouse Pizza. Aaron Franklin, pit master at Franklin Barbecue, discussed his hectic day with Andrew Wiseheart and Ben Edgerton from Contigo.
Franklin had arrived at 7 a.m. to build his own smoker out of cinder blocks, then left to go to a child-birthing yoga class with his wife and put some time in at his restaurant before returning at 7 p.m. to put his whole hog in the pit. “That’s way too early,” ribbed Edgerton.
Edgerton and Wiseheart, both sporting hats with headlamps, planned to start their pig at midnight. The Contigo team was set to slow cook a whole hog, and they came prepared with four friends, several pickups to sleep in, and a lot of beer to get them through the night.
Franklin decided to try something new by making South Carolina-style whole hog barbecue, which he would serve the next day as sandwiches with vinegar and red chile flake slaw. Accompanied by his father-in-law (and barbecue competition enthusiast) Steve Jefferson, Franklin burned down oak and then shoveled the coals into his homemade smoker, where a large pig was slowly cooking. Franklin said this was only his third time doing a whole hog, and the previous two attempts were both test runs in his backyard.
“We’re just trying not to burn a pig,” he joked. Franklin also planned to sleep in his truck, with him and Jefferson taking shifts throughout the night to add coals to the smoker to keep it at a consistent temperature.
As Wiseheart and Edgerton checked out Franklin’s smoker, Ortiz wandered over to chat about upcoming projects. It was a rare moment for these busy Austin chefs to socialize on a Saturday night, when most of them are usually working.
But on a crisp fall night, with the glow of fire surrounding them, they got a chance to just catch up. “That’s what’s so fun about this event,” Franklin said. “Barbecue involves early morning hours, like a baker, so I’m usually on the opposite schedule from everyone else. It’s nice to get to see some old friends.”